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Chapter 2 The River And Its Explorers

La Salle himself sued for certain high privileges, and they were graciously accorded him by Louis XIV of inflated memory.  Chief among them was the privilege to explore, far and wide, and build forts, and stake out continents, and hand the same over to the king, and pay the expenses himself; receiving, in return, some little advantages of one sort or another; among them the monopoly of buffalo hides.  He spent several years and about all of his money, in making perilous and painful trips between Montreal and a fort which he had built on the Illinois, before he at last succeeded in getting his expedition in such a shape that he could strike for the Mississippi.

And meantime other parties had had better fortune.  In 1673 Joliet the merchant, and Marquette the priest, crossed the country and reached the banks of the Mississippi.  They went by way of the Great Lakes; and from Green Bay, in canoes, by way of Fox River and the Wisconsin.  Marquette had solemnly contracted, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, that if the Virgin would permit him to discover the great river, he would name it Conception, in her honor.  He kept his word.  In that day, all explorers traveled with an outfit of priests.  De Soto had twenty-four with him.  La Salle had several, also.  The expeditions were often out of meat, and scant of clothes, but they always had the furniture and other requisites for the mass; they were always prepared, as one of the quaint chroniclers of the time phrased it, to ‘explain hell to the savages.’

On the 17th of June, 1673, the canoes of Joliet and Marquette and their five subordinates reached the junction of the Wisconsin with the Mississippi.  Mr. Parkman says:  ’Before them a wide and rapid current coursed athwart their way, by the foot of lofty heights wrapped thick in forests.’  He continues:  ’Turning southward, they paddled down the stream, through a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man.’

A big cat-fish collided with Marquette’s canoe, and startled him; and reasonably enough, for he had been warned by the Indians that he was on a foolhardy journey, and even a fatal one, for the river contained a demon ’whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.’  I have seen a Mississippi catfish that was more than six feet long, and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds; and if Marquette’s fish was the fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think the river’s roaring demon was come.

’At length the buffalo began to appear, grazing in herds on the great prairies which then bordered the river; and Marquette describes the fierce and stupid look of the old bulls as they stared at the intruders through the tangled mane which nearly blinded them.’

The voyagers moved cautiously:  ’Landed at night and made a fire to cook their evening meal; then extinguished it, embarked again, paddled some way farther, and anchored in the stream, keeping a man on the watch till morning.’

They did this day after day and night after night; and at the end of two weeks they had not seen a human being.  The river was an awful solitude, then.  And it is now, over most of its stretch.

But at the close of the fortnight they one day came upon the footprints of men in the mud of the western bank—­a Robinson Crusoe experience which carries an electric shiver with it yet, when one stumbles on it in print.  They had been warned that the river Indians were as ferocious and pitiless as the river demon, and destroyed all comers without waiting for provocation; but no matter, Joliet and Marquette struck into the country to hunt up the proprietors of the tracks.  They found them, by and by, and were hospitably received and well treated—­if to be received by an Indian chief who has taken off his last rag in order to appear at his level best is to be received hospitably; and if to be treated abundantly to fish, porridge, and other game, including dog, and have these things forked into one’s mouth by the ungloved fingers of Indians is to be well treated.  In the morning the chief and six hundred of his tribesmen escorted the Frenchmen to the river and bade them a friendly farewell.

On the rocks above the present city of Alton they found some rude and fantastic Indian paintings, which they describe.  A short distance below ’a torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi, boiling and surging and sweeping in its course logs, branches, and uprooted trees.’  This was the mouth of the Missouri, ’that savage river,’ which ’descending from its mad career through a vast unknown of barbarism, poured its turbid floods into the bosom of its gentle sister.’

By and by they passed the mouth of the Ohio; they passed cane-brakes; they fought mosquitoes; they floated along, day after day, through the deep silence and loneliness of the river, drowsing in the scant shade of makeshift awnings, and broiling with the heat; they encountered and exchanged civilities with another party of Indians; and at last they reached the mouth of the Arkansas (about a month out from their starting-point), where a tribe of war-whooping savages swarmed out to meet and murder them; but they appealed to the Virgin for help; so in place of a fight there was a feast, and plenty of pleasant palaver and fol-de-rol.

They had proved to their satisfaction, that the Mississippi did not empty into the Gulf of California, or into the Atlantic.  They believed it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  They turned back, now, and carried their great news to Canada.

But belief is not proof.  It was reserved for La Salle to furnish the proof.  He was provokingly delayed, by one misfortune after another, but at last got his expedition under way at the end of the year 1681.  In the dead of winter he and Henri de Tonty, son of Lorenzo Tonty, who invented the tontine, his lieutenant, started down the Illinois, with a following of eighteen Indians brought from New England, and twenty-three Frenchmen.  They moved in procession down the surface of the frozen river, on foot, and dragging their canoes after them on sledges.

At Peoria Lake they struck open water, and paddled thence to the Mississippi and turned their prows southward.  They plowed through the fields of floating ice, past the mouth of the Missouri; past the mouth of the Ohio, by-and-by; ’and, gliding by the wastes of bordering swamp, landed on the 24th of February near the Third Chickasaw Bluffs,’ where they halted and built Fort Prudhomme.

‘Again,’ says Mr. Parkman, ’they embarked; and with every stage of their adventurous progress, the mystery of this vast new world was more and more unveiled.  More and more they entered the realms of spring.  The hazy sunlight, the warm and drowsy air, the tender foliage, the opening flowers, betokened the reviving life of nature.’

Day by day they floated down the great bends, in the shadow of the dense forests, and in time arrived at the mouth of the Arkansas.  First, they were greeted by the natives of this locality as Marquette had before been greeted by them—­with the booming of the war drum and the flourish of arms.  The Virgin composed the difficulty in Marquette’s case; the pipe of peace did the same office for La Salle.  The white man and the red man struck hands and entertained each other during three days.  Then, to the admiration of the savages, La Salle set up a cross with the arms of France on it, and took possession of the whole country for the king—­the cool fashion of the time—­while the priest piously consecrated the robbery with a hymn.  The priest explained the mysteries of the faith ‘by signs,’ for the saving of the savages; thus compensating them with possible possessions in Heaven for the certain ones on earth which they had just been robbed of.  And also, by signs, La Salle drew from these simple children of the forest acknowledgments of fealty to Louis the Putrid, over the water.  Nobody smiled at these colossal ironies.

These performances took place on the site of the future town of Napoleon, Arkansas, and there the first confiscation-cross was raised on the banks of the great river.  Marquette’s and Joliet’s voyage of discovery ended at the same spot—­the site of the future town of Napoleon.  When De Soto took his fleeting glimpse of the river, away back in the dim early days, he took it from that same spot—­the site of the future town of Napoleon, Arkansas.  Therefore, three out of the four memorable events connected with the discovery and exploration of the mighty river, occurred, by accident, in one and the same place.  It is a most curious distinction, when one comes to look at it and think about it.  France stole that vast country on that spot, the future Napoleon; and by and by Napoleon himself was to give the country back again!—­make restitution, not to the owners, but to their white American heirs.

The voyagers journeyed on, touching here and there; ’passed the sites, since become historic, of Vicksburg and Grand Gulf,’ and visited an imposing Indian monarch in the Teche country, whose capital city was a substantial one of sun-baked bricks mixed with straw—­better houses than many that exist there now.  The chiefs house contained an audience room forty feet square; and there he received Tonty in State, surrounded by sixty old men clothed in white cloaks.  There was a temple in the town, with a mud wall about it ornamented with skulls of enemies sacrificed to the sun.

The voyagers visited the Natchez Indians, near the site of the present city of that name, where they found a ’religious and political despotism, a privileged class descended from the sun, a temple and a sacred fire.’  It must have been like getting home again; it was home with an advantage, in fact, for it lacked Louis XIV.

A few more days swept swiftly by, and La Salle stood in the shadow of his confiscating cross, at the meeting of the waters from Delaware, and from Itaska, and from the mountain ranges close upon the Pacific, with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, his task finished, his prodigy achieved.  Mr. Parkman, in closing his fascinating narrative, thus sums up: 

’On that day, the realm of France received on parchment a stupendous accession.  The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the bare peaks of the Rocky Mountains—­a region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked deserts and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile.’